Minnesota roadside pheasant count rises despite harsh winter, declining habitat
Minnesota's pheasant population appears to be up just a little over last year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Monday, but the popular game bird still faces tough times with continued habitat loss.
Minnesota’s pheasant population appears to be up just a little over last year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Monday, but the popular game bird still faces tough times with continued habitat loss.
The DNR’s August roadside wildlife survey showed pheasant numbers up about 6 percent from 2013, with 28.7 birds seen per 100-miles of roadside drive.
The highest counts, as usual, were in the southwest, south-central and west-central counties of Minnesota, where roadside surveys averaged 28 to 62 birds per 100 miles.
DNR officials said the pheasants did well this year despite a long, cold winter and a rainy June.
But before hunters and their dogs get too excited, note that this year’s survey is still 58 percent below the 10-year average, and a whopping 71 percent below the long-term average. The state has been conducting the survey since 1955.
Winter weather can hurt pheasant populations, especially ice, blizzards and prolonged extreme cold. Cold June rains also can hurt a young chick’s chances for surviving. But DNR officials say the loss of grassland has hit pheasants hardest. Hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland that was available to pheasants in the recent past under the federal Conservation Reserve Program has been plowed under in recent years, as farmers try to cash in on higher prices for corn and other row crops.
Minnesota’s pheasant numbers have generally been down for the past seven years, mirroring neighboring states that have seen similar losses of conservation lands.
Minnesota has lost nearly a quarter-million acres of grassland since the Conservation Reserve Program peaked in 2007.
“In just the next three years, we are set to lose (more than) 290,000 acres of CRP across the entire state. ... So, the worst losses for grassland-dependent wildlife are yet to come,” Nicole Davros, the DNR’s research scientist who oversees the roadside survey, told the News Tribune.
Some private and state programs have helped restore some of those lost acres “but it hasn’t been nearly enough to offset our CRP losses,” Davros said.
Some 62,000 Minnesota pheasant hunters bagged 169,000 roosters in 2013. That’s the fewest hunters and lowest harvest since 1986. Hunter numbers were down 19 percent and the number of birds shot declined 32 percent in 2013 from the year before.
“We expect the (long-term) decline in the rooster harvest to continue because of more anticipated losses in grassland habitat in the next few years, as CRP contracts continue to expire and more grassland is converted to cropland,” Davros said.
Pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 224,000 roosters this fall, more than last year but less than half the number of pheasants taken from 2005 to 2008, when habitat and hunting was good.
“My main take-home message for this fall is that … our long-term grassland habitat trends are not good, but there are birds out there to be found in 2014 if folks have the time to spend looking for them,” Davros said.
Although many regions in Minnesota experienced a tough winter, conditions within the core of the pheasant range were not as severe. The survey showed an 18 percent increase in the hen index from 2013. Higher winter hen survival leads to more pheasant nests in the spring.
The number of broods - groups of chicks with a hen - observed per 100 miles driven this year increased 28 percent and the number of broods per 100 hens increased 3 percent.
Also noted in the farmland survey:
* The cottontail rabbit index increased 11 percent from 2013, but remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.
* The gray partridge (often called the Hungarian partridge) index decreased 13 percent, well below its 10-year and long-term average.
* The mourning dove index decreased 5 percent, well below its 10-year and long-term average.
* The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year but remains at a historic low.
* The white-tailed deer index was similar to 2013, at 20.8 deer per 100 miles, which is 34 percent above the 10-year average, and 109 percent above the long-term average.